APARECIDA, Brazil—As they joined Pope Benedict XVI in a massive prayer service Saturday in this shrine town, Latin American Catholics said they're fighting a losing battle to stop the church's two-decade decline in the region.
Nuns, priests and others from parishes around the hemisphere said they've seen millions of Roman Catholics leave the church, an exodus that prompted this week's papal visit.
Peruvian nun Julia Cosi said that many of the Catholics she works with in southern Brazil have joined Pentecostal congregations. "People only go to church to ask for a favor, and when they get it, they go away," she said. "People don't know what church they belong to anymore, and they're trying out everything."
Surveys show that although Brazil remains the world's largest Roman Catholic country, Catholics are now only 64 percent of the population, down from 89 percent in 1980.
Mexican priest Paulino Coronado said the church also has lost ground in his country, especially after Mexican legislators defied church admonishments and voted last month to legalize abortion in the Mexican capital. The pope said Wednesday that such legislators deserve to be excommunicated.
"Many are acting on political concerns or in their own economic interests and are forgetting what's best for the people," Coronado said. "The church is paying attention to all of this, to the rising voices that are against human life."
Benedict said the church needs to get back in touch with the day-to-day lives of worshippers and create more service-based ministries like a Catholic drug rehabilitation center near Aparecida that he visited Saturday morning.
There, the pontiff listed drug addiction as one of the top challenges facing Latin American youth and issued a stern warning to drug dealers.
"I therefore urge the drug dealers to reflect on the grave harm they are inflicting on countless young people and on adults from every level of society: God will call you to account for your deeds," Benedict said. "Human dignity cannot be trampled upon in this way."
At the prayer service later Saturday, the 80-year-old pontiff acknowledged the hard road that lies ahead of the region's Catholics.
"I keep in my thoughts and prayers all the priests spread throughout the world, especially those in Latin America and the Caribbean," he said. "What great challenges, what difficult situations you have to face, with such generosity, self-denial, sacrifices and renunciations!"
With nearly half of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics in Latin America, the church's future depends on stopping the region's losses, said Venezuelan priest David Gutierrez, a spokesman for the Latin American Episcopal Council, the church's coordinating branch in the region.
More than 160 Latin American and Caribbean bishops will tackle the issue in a once-a-decade conference that starts here Sunday, shortly before the pope returns to Rome.
Before flying from the city of Sao Paulo to Aparecida Friday night, the pope asked Brazil's bishops to educate worshippers about their religion better and to encourage more evangelism.
Mexican priest Paulino Coronado said he believes the church's problems present a chance for renewal.
"Like all crises, this will invite reflection and serious study," he said. "The church will come out of it stronger."
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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